HOUSTON ——When Jamie Skeen left Wake Forest, four other basketball programs offered him lifelines: Marquette, Seton Hall and South Florida of the Big East, and VCU.
"I thought all those other schools were better than VCU," Skeen said. "But I saw VCU as having a better future."
While those Big East suitors are watching Saturday, Skeen and VCU will be playing Butler at the Final Four.
Skeen is a major reason why. A senior power forward from Charlotte, N.C., he made first-team All-Colonial Athletic Association and was voted most outstanding player of the NCAA Southwest Regional.
Skeen leads the Rams in scoring (15.4 points per game), rebounding (7.4 average) and shooting percentage (51.5). Perhaps most important, he's become an effective 3-point shooter — he made four against Kansas in Sunday's regional championship game.
"It's such a weapon because … when (opponents) have to come out on the floor and defend him, it opens up so much more for all our other guys," VCU coach Shaka Smart said.
Like Smart, a former point guard at Division III Kenyon College in Ohio, Skeen took the long road to VCU. North Carolina's Mr. Basketball as a junior at North Mecklenburg High, he signed with Wake Forest over Florida, Clemson and North Carolina State, and started 24 games as a freshman.
But a knee injury curtailed Skeen's sophomore season, after which Wake Forest placed him on academic suspension. Rather than re-apply to Wake, which the school said he was welcome to do, Skeen transferred.
"Wake Forest wasn't a bad place to play basketball," he said. "(But) the campus life here at VCU is much better than Wake Forest. Wake Forest only has like 5,000 students. My high school had almost 5,000 students. …
"VCU has two campuses and 33,000 students. I don't see the same people every day walking to class. (At Wake) it was like that movie, 'Groundhog Day,' and you just see the same people every day. It just got a little old."
Per NCAA transfer rules, Skeen sat out the 2008-09 season, only to see VCU coach Anthony Grant exit for the Alabama job.
"When he announced he was leaving, I just walked straight out of the room," Skeen said. "Now looking back, it was childish of me to do. I was thinking about leaving, but I was like, I just got here. I can't do that."
Skeen averaged 8.1 points and 4.5 rebounds last season, hardly the numbers you'd expect from a 6-foot-9, 240-pound ACC transfer. But there was a reason.
VCU's primary low-post player was Larry Sanders, and he led the Rams in scoring and rebounding.
"Patience is a virtue is what I was taught," Skeen said. "I had to wait my turn. When I first transferred here, (guard) Eric Maynor was the guy. … So Larry had to wait, and then when Eric Maynor left, it was the Larry Sanders Show. And then I came in and played Robin to Larry being Batman."
Skeen's turn might never have come had Sanders not declared early for the NBA draft, where the Milwaukee Bucks chose him in the first round.
"You never want an NBA-caliber player to leave early," Smart said. "But Jamie of all people was the beneficiary of Larry's departure. Jamie became the man. He became our go-to guy. He was going to get as many touches as he could handle. Now we've been able to go to him over and over and over again, and he's responded.
"I'm just so happy for him because he did go through some adversity earlier in his career. Really happy that it's finishing the right way. He's come a long way, a long way. He's matured. He's developed as a person. He's done a really good job putting himself in a position where he's on track to graduate this spring. … His attitude has been one of humility, one of wanting to be coached, wanting to get better."
Skeen's high school coach, Duane Lewis, echoes Smart. Proudly wearing a North Mecklenburg sweatshirt and cap on his flight to Houston, Lewis called Skeen quiet and humble, almost to a fault, always eager to defer to others.
"I'm a really soft-spoken guy," Skeen said. "But, when something is really bothering me and I feel like I need to say something, I step up and I say it like a man should."
Lewis said that even in high school, Skeen possessed 3-point range. In fact, Lewis occasionally had to usher Skeen back to the low post, where he was better-suited to dominate smaller high school opponents.
Skeen almost heard a similar edict from VCU coaches when he missed 17 of his first 23 long-range attempts this season.
"I thought I was doomed," Skeen said.
A VCU assistant coach agreed and told Smart that Skeen should be reigned in. Smart said no, and Skeen has made 45.8 percent (27-of-59) of his 3-pointers since, affirming Smart's confidence and concluding his college career at the Final Four.
"Everybody told me I was stupid for coming to VCU," Skeen said. "They told me, 'Why would you go to VCU? They don't get TV time like the Big East teams do.' I (saw) something different, and I'm glad I did."